Self-Reliance Teaching Approaches
by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Teaching Approaches

The Internal Source of Genius: Contrast passages from Emerson’s essays with students’ expectations about what “genius” is and where it comes from. Unlike many other theories of genius circulating in romantic thought (which understood genius as singular and rare), Emerson’s advice to readers as potential geniuses suggests that anyone who thinks and acts according to inner instincts has the potential for greatness. Achieving this greatness is transcendental since it connects individuals to what Emerson identifies as a universal potential of humanity. 

  • For discussion: Consider having your students free-write in response to one or more of the following questions (especially before they read Emerson’s essay): Is there such a thing as genius? Are geniuses born or made? Who decides what counts as “greatness”? How, if at all, are you connected to geniuses of the past? 

The Value of Nonconformity: Emerson argues that social conformity (or what we might now call peer-pressure) inhibits achieving greatness. Society and its institutions amount to a form of censorship because individuals make concessions to the group. Nonconformity requires self-emancipation; one precisely cannot count on change from the outside or through social means; individuals must actively pursue their best selves. 

  • For discussion: What risks are involved with the common advice to “be yourself”? What compromises are students willing to make to please other people? How do students balance conflicting impulses to “fit in” and “stand out”? 

Build Connections Between Transcendentalism and Today: Ideas about American selfhood run so deep and bubble up so perennially that the essay stays accessible. If you feel hip-hop is relatable to your students and that you can talk about the genre credibly without seeming like you’re just doing it to seem “cool,” then that genre can be a fantastic touchpoint because the typical bravado of the rapper fits into the themes of the essay—especially when contextualized or complicated by aspects of hip-hop production, like the major recording labels and (often white) executives who shape and profit from that medium of “expression.” Formal components of hip-hop, like sampling, are also relevant. Macklemore’s “White Privilege” and Drake’s “Started From the Bottom Now We’re Here” are just two examples of texts that might provoke discussion from your students. Alternatively, recent ire over millennials is also something students might have a lot to say about. Social media and accusations of the self-obsessed generation (“snowflakes”) are quintessential re-bubblings of controversies over some the ideas in Emerson’s essay. 

Additional Discussion Questions: 

  • Consider using students’ experiences keeping journals, diaries, or blogs to help understand how Emerson’s drawing from his journal might tie to the themes of his essay. 
  • Draw from students’ experience in lecture settings to think about how Emerson’s message might differ if they heard it in a group versus reading it privately. 
  • Ask how reading more than one of Emerson’s essays complicates common misunderstandings about his ideas. After reading “History,” can we still say that Emerson promotes unqualified individualism in “Self-Reliance”? 

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

Emerson’s Universal Humanity Draws From Limited Examples: Once conversations about genius in the essay get started, one or more students may realize and point out that all of Emerson’s examples are male. This presents a legitimate question about how Emerson imagines universality, and bringing it into the classroom can spur important conversations about inclusion, further exploration of the transcendentalist social scene, and connections to additional reading. 

  • What to do: One option is to come prepared with additional knowledge about some of Emerson’s female contemporaries who engaged in different ways with questions about gender at the time; these...

(The entire section is 1,546 words.)